As the 14th Nagaland Legislative Assembly (NLA) convenes for its second session on September 11, the State Government has a task cut out. This column has previously noted that the Government of Nagaland has taken a resolute stance on both the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023. However, the true test will emerge once the bills are enacted into law by the Parliament.
Between the two, the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act 2023 has already become law, elevating the importance of the State Assembly's subsequent response and stance.
It is important to highlight that, akin to the proposed UCC, several apex Naga community organisations have expressed unequivocal concern over the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act 2023.Among their contentions, they argue that the amended Act undermines the very essence of traditional customary and indigenous ownership-rights of the people over their land and forest, as guaranteed by the proviso of Article 371, contravening the rights of the people.
They have furthermore called upon the Government of Nagaland to promptly convene a special Assembly session to deliberate on the matter and scrutinise its applicability in the State.
Within the political spectrum, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) party has vehemently rejected the newly amended Act, denouncing it as "anti-tribal and anti-constitutional." Meanwhile, the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee (NPCC) has alsolabeled it a ‘threat for Nagaland State.'
Moreover, earlier, the Government of Nagaland submitted its concerns to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) regarding the then Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023, specifically highlighting apprehensions about the 100-kilometre exemption near international borders. It cited the significance of "Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspots" and underscored that the "Indo-Myanmar border is less sensitive than the Indo-China or Indo-Pakistan Border."
Further, the submission emphasised that a substantial portion of forest areas in the State are not officially designated as forests and urged for a targeted amendment excluding private (naturally grown) forest areas from the Act's scope. Nevertheless, these concerns were overlooked by the JPC, which passed the Bill unchanged.
Against the backdrop of these apprehensions, Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio recently opined that the Act "does not pose a threat to Nagas." He justified this viewpoint by noting that only a mere 5% of the forest land belongs to the government in the State of Nagaland, with the remaining 95% being owned by individuals or communities. This negates the very concern it shared with the JPC.
The apparent shift in the State Government's stance, based on the Chief Minister's comment, is indeed disconcerting. However, this does not absolve the State Government of its responsibility to elucidate to its citizens the reasons behind the change in position between June and August. Most crucially, it must alleviate the citizens' fears and elucidate how their rights will remain unscathed. Moreover, if these rights are indeed jeopardised, the government must outline its strategy for safeguarding the people's rights. The upcoming Assembly Session presents a timely opportunity to communicate and address these concerns.
For any comment, drop a line or two to [email protected]